Narrow little streets with the scents of the Mediterranean are a great place to create memories. The Cinque Terre have a fairy-tale geography; they’re a revitalising little world of colourful photogenic houses, and always and forever there is la Dolce Vita. On my trip to the Cinque Terre or “Five Lands”, I explored five villages that are fascinating, or even more than that. They’re geographically close to each other but each is unique. I also took advantage of the trip to explore Porto Venere, Portofino and Moneglia. I fell in love with some places particularly, but every discovery was captivating. It was also a time for me to question my own recipe for happiness, because in the villages the spirit is, in many ways, more important than appearances.
The best advice I can give you for soaking up the tranquillity and charm that prevails in these unusual villages is to let your fancy lead you through the little streets, to stop and talk to the people, to recharge your batteries while looking out over the sea, to climb up through the villages at sunset, and to form your own impression of each of them. Here is mine, with a few practical tips for trip planning.
If you touch down at La Spezia as we did, your first visit will probably be to the capital of the Cinque Terre. Formerly a fishing village, Riomaggiore is today an essential stage in your exploration of the Italian Riviera. This village offers travel buffs a picture-postcard landscape, where lovely multi-coloured houses perched on the hillside rub shoulders with tiny restaurants and charming cafes. If the path is not blocked by landslips, you can get from here to Manarola by the “Lovers’ Walk”. As with the other villages, you learn its secrets by wandering through its narrow little streets as the mood takes you, stopping off in grocery shops, but also going down – in the literal sense – the main street, to where black rocks shelter a narrow inlet of the sea. Then you can enjoy a different vantage point before taking the train for a few minutes to reach the second village.
There’s nothing like the beautiful photos taken by the talented and very nice photographer Gianluca for giving you an idea in advance of the ambiance that awaits you.
Gianluca Cerrata Photography @gianluca_cerrata_photographer
Although the villages look similar at first glance, each one has its own character and each has its own story to tell. Manarola tells of a journey in time that seems forever suspended. With its sublime view, its typical houses like Genoese towers, the soft colours of its facades, its vines and its dynamism, Manarola left me with an unforgettable memory – it was the first part of the Cinque Terre that I fell in love with. Don’t miss: The Nessun Dorma restaurant. It has a panoramic view, but be prepared to wait, and make sure you take cash because they don’t take card payments.
You have to climb 377 steps to explore this more agricultural side of the Cinque Terre. Like all the villages, it is (this one particularly so) small, and reveals itself as you stroll slowly and tranquilly. This was not my favourite, but it certainly has charm and above all some nice spots for admiring the sunset.
Like the other villages, Vernazza is a labyrinth in full colour, but it does stand out from the others by its elegance. As you view it, you are immersed in the history of a place which was formerly the most prosperous of the Cinque Terre. Considered one of the most beautiful villages in Italy, Vernazza is, like Manarola, at the top of my list.
So you’ve visited the four other villages and you think it’s time to lie on a beach scattered with orange and green umbrellas, redolent with nostalgic Italian-style elegance? Not yet! It’s time to explore the largest area of the Cinque Terre, and let yourself be captivated by its charm. Here again, I won’t suggest a particular itinerary because the beauty of the place will reveal itself during your adventure.
Beyond the Cinque Terre
If you are looking for a place that is still free of mass tourism, you don’t need to go very far. Porto Venere is just a few kilometres away, and will surprise you as much by the beauty of its facades in pastel colours and its outstanding settings as by its majestic viewing points. We enjoyed a real experience of la Dolce Vita by stopping on the terrace of a restaurant at the edge of the sea, where Italian music was being played live. It was an almost unreal moment, of indescribable poetry. The village is dominated by a 12th century castle, which gives an even more dreamlike feeling…
Head for Portofino, barely an hour away by train (the nearest station is Santa Margharita) and then bus (or taxi) for the enchantment to continue and even heighten if you’re a lover of luxury or “the luxury of simplicity”.
A short distance from the other villages is Moneglia, a little-known jewel whose charm, to which you will see I succumbed, holds its own with its more illustrious neighbours. It’s impossible for me not to write a post just for Moneglia, which has left its mark on me. Explore it here.
Good to know
The ideal way to visit the Cinque Terre is to arrive at La Spezia, or better yet at Moneglia which I discovered too late, and then to get around by train. Staying in the Cinque Terre is not cheap; we paid about 200 € a night for a mid-range hotel.
The train is the fastest form of transport between La Spezia and the villages. You can buy a “Cinque Terre” ticket which gives unlimited travel between the villages – it’s 41 € for 3 days. The card also gives you a free wi-fi connection in the stations.
Or if you have time, and if you’re fit and active, it’s possible to explore the villages on foot using the hiking paths.
We got there by flying to Pisa, where we spent a night so as to take a train the next morning. This took about an hour to La Spezia. You can also get there from Genoa airport.